Considering Arminianism

My latest at Adventist Today (Nov 16, 2010).

The Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University recently hosted a symposium on “Arminianism and Adventism: Celebrating Our Soteriological Heritage,” October 14-16. David Hamstra posted summaries of the presentations at the “Memory, Meaning & Faith” blog.

Jacob Arminius (1560-1609) was a Dutch Reformed theologian who called into question the teachings of orthodox Calvinism on the bound will, predestination and eternal security. The issue, according to Baylor University theologian Roger E. Olson, was the character of God. Arminius saw Calvin’s version of God to be indistinguishable from the devil, and not the loving Father who “so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

This emphasis on the character of God strikes a responsive chord with Seventh-day Adventist theology, as it is the centerpiece of “the Great Controversy” framework. The conveners of the conference wanted to highlight this point, and express their gratitude to Arminius on the 400th anniversary of the “Remonstrance” of 1610. The Arminian banner was taken up by John Wesley in the 18th century, and Arminius’ teachings were enshrined in the Methodist movement he founded. This was the framework assumed by those founders of the Seventh-day Adventist church, like Ellen White, who came from a Methodist background.

And yet, listening to these presenters, and pondering the debates among evangelicals, it seemed clear to me that though we have assumed certain key points made by Arminius, much of the language and many of the concepts remain foreign. Our theology has tended to use the language of the Bible (King James Version), whereas the Arminian debate often depends upon medieval philosophical and theological categories to which we are unaccustomed.

I’m inclined to agree with these sentiments expressed by William Miller in his “Apology and Defence” (1845):

It is in the use of terms not found in the Scriptures, that disputations arise. For instance, the difference between the Calvinist and Arminian, I often thus explain: Both are in the same dilemma. They are like a company of men in the lower story of a house when the tide is entering, and from which there is no escape only by a rope by which they may be drawn up. All endeavor to lay hold of the rope; the one is continually afraid he has not hold of the right rope; if he was sure he had the right rope he would have no fears. The other has no fear but he has hold of the right rope; he is continually afraid his rope will break. – Now both are equally fearful they may perchance not escape: their fears arise from different causes. How foolish it is, then, for them to begin to quarrel with each other, because the one supposes the rope may break, and the other that it is the wrong rope.

Now I have found Christians among those who believed they were born again, but might fall away; and among those that believed that if they were ever born again they should certainly persevere. The difference between them I regard as a mere matter of education; both have their fears; and both believe that those only who persevere unto the end will be saved. I therefore look on men as bigots who quarrel with others, and deny that those are Christians who cannot see just as they do.

One example of where the use of non-Biblical language gets us in trouble is when grace is divided up into different kinds: prevenient, justifying, sanctifying, etc. Many of the speakers of the conference waxed eloquent about the distinctions, but no one thought it necessary to answer the previous question–What is grace? It seemed to me that many were operating with a view of grace as something substantial–a sort of “stuff” that can be given, divided, and delineated.

How we define grace is critical! Consider, first, how it is understood by the Catechism of the Catholic Church (para. 1996ff): it is “favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call,” but it is more than that–it is “a participation in the life of God,” and this life is then “infused by the Holy Spirit into our soul to heal it of sin and to sanctify it.” The Reformers would stop at the first part–grace is God’s unmerited favor. Catholic teaching about grace, though, allows for merit to play a role. As the Catechism explains (para. 2010),

Since the initiative belongs to God in the order of grace, no one can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification, at the beginning of conversion. Moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity, we can then merit for ourselves and for others the graces needed for our sanctification, for the increase of grace and charity, and for the attainment of eternal life.

No one at the conference defined grace. No one at the conference got into the historic disputes between Catholics and Protestants over the meaning and application of grace. Yet this is foundational to understanding the dispute between Arminius and the Calvinists of his day.

Let’s start with the term, “prevenient grace.” This is a critical term for Arminians, for it is their response to the charge of Pelagianism that the Calvinists have leveled at them. To avoid a charge of teaching that natural man can respond on his own to God they must postulate that God gives an initial grace. This is what they call “prevenient grace.” This wasn’t original with Arminius–it was at the heart of the response of the Synod of Orange (529 AD) to Pelagius. And at the time of the Reformation, it was also fundamental to Trent’s understanding of justification. The Council of Trent put it this way:

The Synod furthermore declares, that in adults, the beginning of the said Justification is to be derived from the prevenient grace of God, through Jesus Christ, that is to say, from His vocation, whereby, without any merits existing on their parts, they are called; that so they, who by sins were alienated from God, may be disposed through His quickening and assisting grace, to convert themselves to their own justification, by freely assenting to and co-operating with that said grace: in such sort that, while God touches the heart of man by the illumination of the Holy Ghost, neither is man himself utterly without doing anything while he receives that inspiration, forasmuch as he is also able to reject it; yet is he not able, by his own free will, without the grace of God, to move himself unto justice in His sight. Whence, when it is said in the sacred writings: Turn ye to me, and I will turn to you, we are admonished of our liberty; and when we answer; Convert us, O Lord, to thee, and we shall be converted, we confess that we are prevented by the grace of God.

I posed this question to Roger Olson–isn’t this why the Reformed had a problem with Arminius? His teachings sounded little different from the teachings of Trent? He acknowledged this, but didn’t really want to get into it. He argued, though, that merit is a more critical difference between evangelical and Catholic positions. I agree--but the Catholic teaching on merit rests on this distinction between prevenient grace, justifying grace, and sanctifying grace. By dividing up grace in this way they are able to hold to both 1) we can’t do anything apart from grace and 2) we can merit more grace after the initial grace. I later spoke with another speaker, Keith Stanglin, who acknowledged that the similarity between Arminius’ teachings on grace and Catholic dogma led his Calvinistic opponents to suspect he might be a closet Jesuit!

So it seems to me that Arminius, attempting to refute the scholastic systematizers of Calvin’s thought, fell back on the only other framework with which he was familiar–medieval Catholic philosophical distinctions. This helped to give clarity to his thinking, but it also opened up other problems. And his Calvinist opponents, instead of acceding to his Biblical presentation of the character of God, were able to latch onto his philosophical shortcomings and dismiss his theology as just another version of the medieval Roman system that they had abandoned.

Another problem with this use of non-Biblical terminology arises when we consider the question of assurance of salvation, a topic discussed by Woody Whidden and Keith Stanglin. As laid out by Whidden, one can base assurance on either a priori considerations (God’s mercy, love, grace, as revealed in Christ) or a posteriori factors (what we’ve experienced)–what Stanglin refers to as “the good fruit visible on a good tree.” These latter include:

  1. The sense of faith
  2. The internal testimony of the Holy Spirit
  3. The struggle of the Spirit against the flesh
  4. The desire to engage in good works.

But Arminius argued for the a priori factors in a rather peculiar way. He spoke of the “two-fold love of God–God primarily loves himself [NB: Really? I didn’t know narcissism was one of his attributes!] and the good of righteousness (or justice), and he secondarily loves the creature and its blessedness,” Stanglin says. As a consequence, God “will never condemn a believer or ignore the sins of the impenitent unbeliever. With this affirmation about God, believers may rest assured that God loves them and genuinely desires their salvation.”

I really don’t see how such philosophical reasoning would provide any comfort to one tempted to despair!

I find much more satisfying responses in the Lutheran tradition. Luther believed in predestination as much as Calvin and Zwingli, because he saw so much in Scripture testifying to it (e.g., Rom. 8:28-30) and to God’s mysterious ways in accomplishing his will (including hardening the hearts of some, like Pharaoh, and dragging others kicking and screaming into his will, like Jonah). He lays this out in The Bondage of the Will. But these things lie in what Luther calls God’s “inscrutable will”–they have to do with the “hidden God” (Deus absconditus). We cannot gaze at the naked majesty of God’s splendor and power. We must cling to the Word, in which he has revealed his grace and mercy.

Thus Luther would say to the one in despair: Don’t focus on either your sins or whether God has predestined you. Cling instead to the Word, as it is preached to you and as it is presented to you in visible form, especially in the Sacraments. As he says in the “Large Catechism,”

Thus we must regard Baptism and make it profitable to ourselves, that when our sins and conscience oppress us, we strengthen ourselves and take comfort and say: Nevertheless I am baptized; but if I am baptized, it is promised me that I shall be saved and have eternal life, both in soul and body.

Luther turns the person away from introspection to focus on God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ. He holds before them the Gospel. He tells them God will be true to his promise.

But herein lies a danger to us. Seventh-day Adventists don’t need to fear the introduction of Calvinism. I don’t see that likely to happen. The danger facing Adventists today is the introduction of philosophical constructs that go beyond the teaching of Scripture. Fleeing the Scylla of Calvinism, some have embraced the Charybdis of a philosophical theism that binds God to courses of action that are deemed reasonable and in accordance with a certain human understanding of freedom. In so doing, they reject not only predestination as understood by Calvin, but also God’s foreknowledge. For these philosophers, God can’t know our choices or the future. If he did, we wouldn’t be free. But in robbing God of foreknowledge, they’ve also divested him of his providence. They’ve given us a god whose hands are tied and who doesn’t know himself how the story of salvation will end. In the name of Arminius, they’ve embraced something that Arminius and Calvin equally rejected. How can the Christian have any assurance if he embraces the so-called “Open Theism”? How can we believe that the story will end as God has said it will? Luther affirmed in The Bondage of the Will something I think to be central to the Bible’s understanding: “the Christian’s chief and only comfort in every adversity lies in knowing that God does not lie, but brings all things to pass immutable, and that His will cannot be resisted, altered or impeded.”

We claim to follow “the Bible and the Bible only.” The Reformers articulated this premise in distinction to the Roman Catholic teachings on both tradition and human reason. This symposium convinced me that we cannot uncritically accept the Arminian tradition, because it has much that is un-Biblical in it–it failed to heed the Reformation warnings against the misuse of philosophy. Let us remain Protestants–let us base our assurance on the Bible and the Bible only. Let us rid ourselves of the need to try to wrap our feeble minds around every question, and respond with the humility demonstrated by Job at the end of his ordeal (Job 42:2-6 NIV):

“I know that you can do all things;
no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?’
Surely I spoke of things I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me to know.

“You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak;
I will question you,
and you shall answer me.’
My ears had heard of you
but now my eyes have seen you.
Therefore I despise myself
and repent in dust and ashes.”